Tuesday, 22 March 2011

Seeing the smaller picture

I had a lovely visit to the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery recently. I always enjoy it there. For a start, the setting is wonderful: Grade II* listed splendour, all airy spaciousness, a beautiful collection of William de Morgan tiles, and an elegant tea room (where, I freely admit, my visits invariably begin - the coffee is good and the Danish pastries are the biggest I have ever seen).

The Museum is hosting a major Pre-Raphaelite exhibition - 'The Poetry of Drawing' - featuring drawings, watercolours and designs from the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood and their associates. This is a true feast for the soul, and I'd love to go again but it's a four hundred mile round trip.

I’m always contented if I come away from an exhibition captivated by a single work, something which has caught my imagination enough to stay with me, and which would have been worth the entrance fee in itself. It doesn't have to be the biggest or grandest or most impressive of the exhibits, and very often it isn't: what usually attracts me is the more intimate, human moment, captured simply and eloquently.

This time, amongst the fine watercolours, intricate textile designs and bright schemes for stained glass, what really caught my eye was Millais' small pen drawing, 'Lovers by a Rosebush', which depicts a pair of lovers and their dog in a luxuriant garden.

The couple are adorned in mediaeval dress, she with a fine veil covering her head, rendered with a single line. Hand-in-hand, they both look towards the ground: the woman's skirt has caught on a rosebush. The picture captures the moment where the man delicately frees the skirt from the thorn on which it is hooked.

 'Lovers by a Rosebush' John Everett Millais
© Birmingham Museums and Art Gallery

This image would have been exquisite if it had simply shown the lovers in the garden with their dog. But with this small, everyday detail, Millais has added extra humanity to his picture. Almost like a photographer, he has captured the ‘decisive moment' which brings meaning to the scene; and like a good script-writer, he has enhanced his vignette of two people in a garden with interest and incident. 

'The Poetry of Drawing' is a true delight, and I really would recommend a visit. The exhibition continues until 15th May 2011.


  1. That is a tender and deeply romantic drawing. I've always loved the languid pre-Raphaelite beauties, it was definitely all about the women for the PRB! It's so long since I saw a BIG exhibition - looks like this one might be worth the train fare?

  2. Hello Ann! Thank you for dropping by! Yes, the exhibition is absolutely worth the journey - I felt I was floating on air after a couple of hours in there. Wonderful. Catch it while you can...!